Annabelle Wilson had only one wish for the holidays. She wanted to spend the day alone. Shifting her weight, she slipped her aching foot from her shoe and wiggled her toes. After wiping her hands on her apron, she finished filling the last box of chocolates. Her fingers trembled with fatigue. After the overwhelming pressure of the past few months she needed a break.
The gilded sign announcing Belle’s Best Candy gleamed in the light from the street. Matt Stone’s grin warmed her more than warranted by his casual greeting. He stopped everyday on the way to the nearby fire station for his work shift and she looked forward to his version of eye candy.
“Taking tomorrow off? I’ll miss my daily dose of sweetness,” Matt said. His clear blue eyes gleamed with humor. Belle looked at the way his lips curved and wondered if they would taste like his favorite chocolate. Her heart skipped like an excited child. She taped shut the full box of hand-made chocolates and handed them to her most frequent customer with a wry smile.
“First time since I opened in October,” she replied and shrugged, “My entire family is getting together for Christmas dinner.”
The glass shelves rattled as another Southern California tremor occurred. A shiver raced up her spine. She flattened her hands on the counter and his warm fingers covered hers.
“Don’t be afraid.” His voice was bed-room husky and a fleeting picture of him whispering against her skin sent a different kind of shiver over her skin.
“You’d think I’d be used to them after all these years.” Belle sighed as her gaze wandered over his tall frame. He was a little over six foot tall and her head would fit under that square chin when they danced. She stifled a longing sigh. Although lean he had a muscular strength her female imagination wanted to test in a playful wrestling contest. Not for the first time she regretted the lack of time for more than a light flirtation.
“I never have,” he soothed.
Her cell phone burbled and she answered with a cheerful, “Belle’s Best, Mom. Are you ready for tomorrow?” Matt’s smile broadened when she identified her caller and she swallowed before slipping her hand free. “I’m closing the shop in a few minutes. I won’t be late for church service. And I’m bringing a box of your favorites. Bye.” She disconnected.
Matt held his candy box like a treasure. “I’m running behind. Will you be okay?” Usually her last customer of the day, he’d made it a habit to walk her to her car.
“I’m fine. I waited to close until you came,” she said and felt her cheeks heat. Her gaze met his and her lips parted. He seemed to read her mind.
“Maybe we’ll see each other, do dinner, and make it a really special holiday.” His bright blue eyes twinkled as he bent to press a gentle kiss to her mouth.
“Why did you do that?” she whispered. Her lips felt swollen and tender. He did taste of chocolate.
“An early Christmas gift? It was time.” He traced a finger over her heated cheek and smiled.
“Call me,” she whispered as she scribbled her phone number on the box top. Her lips felt swollen and tender. “Have a Merry Christmas.”
Closing took a few minutes. Another tremor rattled the glass shelves and she prayed the repeated quakes didn’t damage anything. Belle’s Best Candy was her pride and joy in the same way as new baby.
Opening her candy shop before the Holidays had been an inspiration. First Halloween, then Thanksgiving had been busy. Her business grew by leaps and bounds, but the eighteen hour days had left her exhausted. After she waved good-bye to Matt, she flipped over the closed sign on the front door and checked her watch.
She’d promised to attend midnight services with her family and she had exactly ten minutes to reach the church. After slipping her leather handbag straps over her shoulder, she ran her hand through her tousled hair. The glass in the door shivered as another tremor tickled the California landscape.
This time she barely noticed. She looked forward to a quiet hour with her family. Her parents thought she’d been working too many hours making candy and not enough with them. Thankfully the sidewalk was empty and the passing traffic was light. Nearer the Mall last minute sales had drawn crowds.
Next to her building, a four-story parking garage encouraged shoppers to visit the area. When Matt walked with her to a rear section designated for business owners they often chatted for a few minutes. Memories of his kiss lightened her tired spirits. Maybe she could heat up their flirtation with a date. Her heels clipped on the concrete floor.
Another, stronger quake shook her car and the alarm went off. Luckily she had the keys in her hand and quickly silenced the loud blare.
The thick concrete floor buckled upward. Dust filled the air as noise rumbled.
A scream ripped from her throat as she was flung into the air.
Impressions strobed before her frightened gaze: the cracking ceiling bulging like a balloon; dirt fell in a hideous blinding blizzard; her car leaped like a goosed rabbit.
Deafening noise roared like an attacking beast.
She fell. Time slowed. Incredibly her mind raced. This couldn’t be happening! I’m not ready! Death reached out its cold hand and she shrieked. No! No! No!
The hard cement smacked the air from her lungs. Her shoulder twisted to the side. Concrete ceiling chunks cascaded down. Pain exploded in her head and everything went black.
What happened? She hurt all over. Belle opened her mouth to moan. Debris coated her tongue. The coppery taste of blood turned her stomach. She coughed and spit. The slight movement shot pain through her entire body.
Earthquake! There’s been an earthquake and she was buried in the rubble. Her racing pulse sent blood pounding through her. Panic grabbed her by the throat and she screamed. A loud creaking from overhead turned her shriek to a whimper. Gradually her pulse slowed. Matt’s smiling face filled her mind. She remembered the touch of Mat’s hand and his reassurance. “Don’t be afraid.”
Hiccupping a watery sigh she relaxed. Matt. He’d been heading to the fire station down the street. A prayer for his safety quivered from her lips.
She eased her head from the floor and squinted into the dust-filled dark. There wasn’t much she could see. Her nose was clogged, but she smelled oil and a trace of gasoline. Pain lanced up her neck. This time her groan escaped.
A broken laugh caught her by surprise. It looked like she had the bad luck to be in the wrong place when the big one had hit.
Inches of grit covered her hand. Slowly she became aware she still clutched her keys in her fist. Pressing her other hand to her cheek, she felt tears. She hadn’t been aware she cried. Her arm was held fast and she tried to pull it free. She couldn’t move it.
For a horrifying moment she feared she was paralyzed. Panic grabbed at her, but this time she managed to keep control. She could feel every inch of her aching body. The entire parking garage must have come down. She was trapped under four stories of concrete. Shivers racked her chilled muscles. Thank goodness Matt hadn’t walked her to her car.
How long would it take for someone to look for her? Had the quake been large enough to hit the church where her parents waited? Or the fire station where Matt worked as a fireman? Her thoughts scrambled like a rat on a wheel. She prayed everyone was unhurt, than snuck in a short plea for herself. Deafening noise jolted her. It was impossible to know what all the creaks, bangs and clangs meant, but she feared the entire place would fall.
The ground hitched under her like a caterpillar. Overhead the slabs shifted, the grating noise filling her ears as her fingers clawed for purchase.
When the motion halted, her clothes were soaked with sweat and dust coated her wet face. Her heart stuttered with fear. Unless she got free, she’d eventually be buried.
Time had taken on a weird elastic shape. There was no way to tell how long she’d been trapped. After a long moment she wanted to slap her forehead. Her wristwatch. She eased her hand forward, keeping her grip on the keys. The tiny luminous numbers read twelve fifteen.
It was Christmas day.
Belle pressed her face to her forearm and cried. This wasn’t what she meant when she wished to spend the day alone. She wished she’d agreed to Matt’s invitation. Her heart ached with regret. He had to be safe. He was trained for all kinds of emergencies.
She pictured her family kneeling in church. Maybe they were trapped, too. The thought she might never see her family again tore at her soul. She loved her parents, her irritating older brother and younger sister. All the in-laws and outlaws too. If any of them had been hurt or worse, she’d never get over the grief.
After a long session of uncontrollable weeping, Belle sniffed and tried to remember if she had tissues in her handbag. Following the straps with her hand she realized the strong leather was what held her arm in place. She slipped it free and traced the straps over the concrete pinning her bag. The bottom was crushed but a she found a sample tissue wrapper near the opening. She blew her nose and for some reason the homey action cleared her mind. Except for bruises and scrapes she was unhurt. Maybe she could get out of here. Biting her lip, she pressed the car opener.
A tiny slit of light appeared at floor level to her right and the horn honked. The little vehicle had somehow been undamaged. She blinked as her eyes adjusted. A concrete slab had come down between her and her car. When she stretched out her arm to the left, her fingers banged against another rough surface. She could barely make out the jagged edge of broken cement and steel rebar posed overhead.
More shivers wracked her body. If that piece fell, she’d be a goner. She’d never get the chance to kiss Matt again or go on that dinner date. Longing to see him welled from deep inside, bringing determination with it. Her hands fisted.
That lighted slit didn’t offer a way out. She frowned. She couldn’t wait for help. She had to find a way.
She inched forward. Every muscle in her bruised body protested and she groaned. Too bad her aspirin was in the crushed bottom of her bag. Pausing, she pawed through what she could reach. The crushed pieces of her cell phone scratched her fingers. Her Mom’s box of chocolates spilled into her hand. She stuffed them into her pocket. Who knew how long she’d be in here.
The light blinked off. It was an automatic action and she licked her dry lips. What should she do? The battery might not last long, but honking the horn would alert rescuers to her exact location. Matt and the rest of his buddies were probably searching for trapped people as she crept forward.
Pressing the opener, she crept further. Rebar tangled in her hair and she winced. She couldn’t move fast. Her clothes caught on the rough surface and she had to keep jerking free. The light went off and she repeated the light and honk again. The next hour dragged like her body through the tight space.
She realized by crawling forward she was leaving the light behind. Her bruised fingers bumped into a wall and she frantically felt around for an opening. Her heart stuttered. Solid cement blocked the way.
Okay, she’d try going back. Unable to turn in the narrow slot she wiggled and squirmed until she returned to where her purse lay. Her body felt heavy with fatigue. It must be daylight by now, but no-one had found her. Dirt had sifted under her clothes and irritated her skin. Her fingers were bleeding from a dozen cuts. Fatigue swamped her body and she longed to surrender.
A loud banging filled the air. For a second she wondered if the supports were failing.
“Belle? Annabelle? Can you hear me?”
“Matt? Matt? I’m here!” She shrieked with relief and pressed the opener. The beeping blared.
“Stay still. I’ll find you,” he called. “I can see the car lights.”
Belle pressed her hand to the cement. “But I’m not there,” she whispered.
“Matt!” she yelled despite her scratchy throat. I can’t reach the car.”
The silence was broken by the patter of dirt falling. A rumble followed by another threatening heave made her press to the floor. She crossed her arms over her head and prayed.
“Where are you?” Matt shouted.
“The headlights are near my head, a big slab of concrete to the right between me and the car,” she gasped.
“Stay where you are,” he ordered. His commanding voice filled her with relief. He was a fireman. He knew what he was doing. The headlights went out but a powerful light flickered back and forth over the crack. “I’m looking for an opening.”
“Hey, If I could move, I’d be out of here,” she replied. The sudden surge of relief had her dizzy. Matt had come for her. And she planned to accept that dinner invitation. Her fingers curled in the silt and she pushed sideways so she could look the other way. A faint gleam appeared and she realized there was a hole. With fierce determination she managed to wiggle around. Her blouse tore with a ragged sound and her shoulder scrapped painfully on the encroaching walls.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“Just scratches and bruises,” she panted as she crept forward. “I can see your flashlight. There’s a hole.”
“Be careful. Don’t knock anything lose. The whole garage came down.”
Belle winced but didn’t ask about her store. That wasn’t as important as Matt’s safety.
“But you’re okay? Do you know about the rest of the city? The church? My parents?” her voice ended on a wobbly squeak.
“Hush. Hush. The quake is pretty localized. No reported loss of life. I helped rescue some others on the upper levels, but I told them I had to find you.”
“Can you see me?” Belle reached the opening and thrust her arm through. She started to cry. “It’s too small. I can’t get through.”
His warm hand closed around hers. “I’ve got you. Don’t be afraid.”
“I’m not. Not since you got here. I know it’s silly to feel safe, but that how you make me feel.”
Know he was so close sent hope rocketing through her. She tried twisting her shoulders sideways, but remained trapped.
“I should have gone on a diet,” she grumbled under her breath.
“Don’t be silly. You’re perfect the way you are.” Matt shook her hand gently. “I’ll get you out.”
“But how? That concrete is a foot thick.” She wondered if she sounded as frantic as she felt.
“I wish I could hold you. I know you’re anxious.” His fingers tightened and her eyes filled with tears. “Hang on. I have tools with me to chip away some of that block and if that doesn’t work, the department had bigger ones. Are you thirsty?”
“Oh, yes,” she managed, suddenly aware her throat felt like a desert road. The light brightened as he moved the flashlight closer. Her gaze moved over the jagged cement and twisted rebar as he fit a plastic bottle into her fingers.
“You need to keep hydrated. Drink that,” he instructed.
“Is it like the magic potion Alice drank? Will I shrink so I can get through that opening?”
“Don’t I wish. Then we could share a magic chocolate to return you to normal.” His familiar laugh wrapped around her like cocoon and she drank carefully. It wasn’t easy lying on her stomach. Water splashed down her chin. She dug in her pocket for a tissue and found the chocolate. The wrapped pieces were intact. She took a couple out.
“Matt? I have that magic chocolate here. Take one.” Although she was enclosed by the blocks, she managed to reach out and handed him one of his favorites.
“What a girl! Just what I needed. Did you know your kiss tasted sweet? ” She heard the rustle of the wrapper and smiled. She bit into one and the flavor filled her mouth.
The walls shook. Rumbling deafened her. Matt’s hand snagged hers and she clutched him. A piece of rebar jabbed her in the back and she squirmed sideways. The slab was coming down.
Matt yanked on her arm as the world tilted.
She popped through the twisting hole like a raft over rapids. She felt his powerful arms wrap her in a protective embrace. When everything settled she was sprawled over him.
“Don’t call me,” she whispered.
“Why not?” he said and gave her a quizzical stare. His arms remained locked around her and she pressed her face to his chest. The thick rubber protective clothes felt strange under her hands, but his familiar form reassured her.
“That number is no longer in service.” She sighed and gestured at the rubble. He laughed and kissed her. His mouth felt like home.
A long moment later he lifted his head. “Much as I’d like to continue, we need to get out of here.”
Belle nodded. He crept through a jungle of broken slabs and she kept on hand on his thigh as she followed.
Her parents were waiting outside. She scrambled to her feet, but didn’t let go of Matt. Her heart filled with joy. Everyone she loved was safe. She had gotten her best wish.
“Come and meet my parents. You’re coming to dinner. I’m not wasting another day wishing.”